UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA AGRICULTURAL EXPERIMENT STATION «*#«■• w~m *%..- m~~.~.... —...._ BENJ. IDE WHEELER, President COLLEGE OF AGRICULTURE THOMAS FORSVTH HUNT, EAN AN D D I R ECTOR BERKELEY H. E. VAN NORMAN, Vice-Director and DrAN University Farm School CIRCULAR No. 20:3 August, 1918 PEAT AS A MANURE SUBSTITUTE By JOHN S. BURD (Chemist in Charge of Fertilizer Control, Professor of Agricultural Chemistry, University of California.) The present tendency of soil and fertilizer investigations is to emphasize the importance of materials of organic origin as soil amend- ments. The virtue of such substances lies partially in the fact that they invariably contain small proportions of necessary chemical elements (so-called "plant foods"), but considerable importance is also attached to certain characteristic properties of the organic (non- mineral) components. Among these may be mentioned their great water-holding power, capacity for serving as nutrient media for cer- tain beneficial organisms (bacteria, molds, etc.), and indirect action on the mineral particles of the soil or the soil solution. Soils of the humid region normally contain several per cent of organic matter. The amount depends upon many factors, but the finer soils (clays and loams) usually carry more than do* the coarse soils (sands). In California and other arid sections the high tempera- ture and low and variable moisture content have the effect both of preventing the accumulation of organic matter and of causing it to disappear rapidty from cultivated soils of all kinds. The average organic matter content of arid soils seems to be less than 1 per cent, i.e., from one-half to one-quarter that of similar soils of the humid region. Additions of even large amounts of decaying organic matter to arid soils will only serve to raise the amount of that material tempo- rarily, because the conditions are unfavorable to its accumulation. Indeed, if organic matter is to be effective the material must decay and thus disappear from the soil. To maintain the organic matter in arid soils, therefore, requires the constant addition of the manure of domestic animals, green manures or cover crops, or of straw or hay which has been rendered unfit for animal feed. Any kind of vegetative tissue which is capable 2 of decay in the soil may be used but it is v exceedingly doubtful if materials from other sources are worth any more than the cost of application. This means that the farmer should use such waste materials from his own place but that their argicultural value is too problematical to warrant their purchase from others. EVALUATION OF MANURES The well known deficiencies of arid soils with reference to organic matter have caused our farmers to search everywhere for such material. The value of manure as a soil amendment is unquestioned, but different lots may vary in effectiveness and a determination of their relative values presents an exceedingly complex and technical problem. The whole question of soil fertility is involved and farmers may not hope in the present state of our knowledge to obtain exact statements as to the commercial value of a given lot of manure. The following principles are suggested as the proper basis for purchasing farmyard manure. 1. Whenever possible buy on a basis of the organic content of the material. 2. If several lots of manure are procurable at different prices, the cheapest "buy" may be determined by dividing the price per ton by the percentage of organic matter (i.e., the price per unit of organic matter). 3. The nitrogen content of the manure may be ignored because the nitrogen will vary with the organic content within sufficiently narrow limits for this purpose. 4. Ignore the phosphoric acid and potash of the manure because the former is usually insignificant and the latter is relatively unim- portant as a fertilizer on California soils. 5. Considerable variation in the amount of added straw in manure is permissible as dry straw contains more organic matter than fresh manure. 6. The amount of water and sand or stones is not material if the manure is purchased on the unit basis for organic matter, except that it increases the transportation charges. 7. A limited amount of sawdust or shavings in manure is to be regarded as legitimate, but manures containing excessive amounts should be rejected. 8. Manures containing sticks or visible woody material other than sawdust or shavings should be rejected even if offered at a lower price. We are well aware that there are certain very practical obstacles to the purchase of manures on the unit basis of organic matter. A strict regard for the other principles outlined will, however, if com- bined with a little common sense and experience enable anyone to buy as effectively as the market conditions permit. Chemical analyses for nitrogen, phosphoric acid and potash are of minor value and constitute an unnecessary expense or actual waste of time on the part of the Experiment Station. Such analyses will ordinarily be refused. HUMUS VERSUS TOTAL ORGANIC MATTER A great deal of loose talk is heard with reference to humus in the soil. If by humus is meant organic matter of vegetable origin capable of decay under the conditions existing in normal soils, the use of the term is perhaps legitimate. The term humus, however, is ordinarily applied to that portion of any material of organic origin which is soluble in dilute alkalies. The use of the term in this sense was quite common a few years ago. It is, however, now generally recognized that the humus determination in soils and soil amendments is abso- lutely worthless as an indicator of fertility or fertilizing value. The reason for this is that solubility in alkali affords no guaranty that any portion of the material so dissolved will decay in the soil; fur- thermore organic matter which is not soluble in alkalies may decay and be a valuable addition to the soil. The well known defects of the humus determination and the conviction that it has no meaning in terms of soil fertility lead us to urge the abandonment of the use of this term. Farmers should therefore purchase manures or manure substitutes without regard to humus content, but with strict regard to the probable total of organic matter. CONCENTRATED MANURE, HUMUS AND PEAT The term manure, as used in this country, is confined to the excre- ments of domestic animals more or less mixed with bedding material. Concentrated manure should only be used with reference to manure which has been dried. The use of the term manure or concentrated manure when applied to substitutes of other origin is fraudulent. For the reasons indicated heretofore any representation put forth in attempts to sell any substance which includes a statement that the material contains a definite percentage of humus is either fraud- ulent in its intent or based on ignorance of the present status of the humus determination. Deposits of partially decayed remains of plants owing their preservation to submergence in water are technically known as peat. It is not legitimate to refer to such substances as humus or concen- trated manure, no matter how they have been treated. Their uses and limitations as soil amendments are set forth hereafter. PEAT SOILS While normal soils contain only a few per cent of organic matter, certain soils contain very large proportions of this material and the mineral constituents are relatively low. This class comprises muck and peat soils, the latter of which may contain in the dry state 80 per cent or more of organic matter. Peat soils owe their origin to the fact that successive generations of native plants growing in stand- ing water become submerged on completing their growth and the processes of decay characteristic of normal soils do not take place. The excess of water prevents the access of air and acts as a preserva- tive. In this manner successive layers of plant residues are laid down year after year and the deposits may accumulate to a considerable depth. In the peat so derived the structure of the plants to which they owe their origin is still intact and gives testimony as to the incompleteness of their decomposition. Peat soils may occur in any place where native growth is prolific and where such growth becomes submerged. They occur extensively in glaciated regions in the glacial ponds or lakes and also in marshes and low-lying lands elsewhere. In the "delta" region of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers in California large areas of peat lands are under cultivation ; more limited areas occur in other parts of the state. As stated above large areas of peat lands are under cutlivation and when properly drained and free from disease may produce excel- lent crops of barley, potatoes, etc. These soils are usually highly acid, even in the well-drained and aerated surface soil; at the same time they frequently contain considerable quantities of soluble salts. In common parlance such soils would be said to be both acid and "alkaline." There is this difference between the real acidity and the so-called "alkalinity" that the acidity does not seem to be sufficient to prevent the growth of good crops but that the soluble salts tend to increase under cultivation and cause a falling off in yield after several years. PEAT AS A SOIL AMENDMENT Owing to the dearth and high price of farmyard manure it is not surprising that the practically inexhaustible supply of peat with its high organic content has been suggested as a possible substitute for this valuable amendment. A discussion as to the value of any material used to improve the producing capacity of a soil must be based in part on the amount of the important constituents and in part upon their so-called avail- ability. It is evident that very small percentages of the important constituents in a fertilizer or amendment cannot have any material effect in modifying the composition of a soil, no matter how "avail- able ' ' they may be ; on the other hand, large percentages will be equally ineffective if of low availability. The two constituents which peat might be expected to add to a soil when used as a fertilizer or amendment are organic matter and nitrogen. The total organic matter and total nitrogen of fresh peat approximate more nearly in amount to that of farmyard manure than to any other substance commonly applied to soils. We may therefore logically compare peat with manure, a method which has the addi- tional advantage of using as a standard a material of well known agricultural value. Analyses of Peat (Expressed as percentages of the fresh material) Subsurface Subsurface Subsurface Surface (drained) (wet) (wet) 12 3 4 Water 66.23 68.93 64.74 78.11 Organic matter 18.74 24.37 22.28 13.84 Mineral matter (ash) 15.03 6.70 12.98 8.05 Total 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00 Plant Food Content of Peat (Three different samples) Per cent Per cent Per cent Nitrogen 0.61 0.86 0.49 Phosphoric acid 0.16 0.17 0.12 Potash 0.19 0.12 0.06 Farmyard manures are of variable composition, depending on the kind of animal, age, method of feeding, amount of straw, etc. We may take as an average for fresh manure with some straw about 20 per cent of organic matter, 0.50 per cent nitrogen, 0.25 per cent phos- phoric acid and 0.60 per cent potash. The peat analyses here given show that this material contains roughly about the same total of organic matter (varying from considerably less to slightly more) than manure; that the nitrogen content of both substances is about the same (many samples of manure contain more nitrogen than many peats) ; and finally, that the peats all contain much less phosphoric 6 acid and potash than the average sample of manure. It is clear that even if it were true that the organic matter of fresh peat decomposes with the same facility as that of manure and if the availability of the so-called plant foods in peats is equal to that of manure, the peat could not possibly be considered as of equal value to the average fresh manure. DECOMPOSABILITY OF PEAT A peat soil, even when drained and aerated, or a pile of the same material, will maintain its initial appearance almost indefinitely, in marked contrast to the manure pile, in which fundamental changes may be observed from time to time. No one who has made such observations can fail to be impressed by the difference between the two substances and the obvious inertness of the former. It is evident that such inert material as peat is incapable of the rapid decay usually associated with "available" materials like manure. Much work has been done by several investigators on the nitro- genous constituents of peat. The general conclusion with reference thereto may be epitomized by the following quotation. 1 "Practically all the nitrogen in the peats is of organic nature. Through weathering the organic nitrogenous bodies present in the brown peat change quite slowly. ' ' We have observed in this laboratory that peat from California sources is similar to that from other sources referred to above in that its nitrogen consists almost entirely of organic nitrogen and not of the highly available nitrate and ammonia salts. The Citrus Experi- ment Station at Riverside has made similar observations and, in addition, nitrification studies which unquestionably demonstrate the low availability of peat nitrogen. The conclusions reached in these experiments are indicated from the following excerpt from a report of Dr. W. P. Kelley, Professor of Agricultural Chemistry, Citrus Experiment Station, Riverside, California. . . . After the above experiments had stood for a year a study was also made of the effects that had been produced on the solubility of the various plant foods present. The results showed that in neither case had any appreciable effect been produced by the peat. The manure and alfalfa hay, on the other hand, had notably increased the solubility of the various plant food elements present. From the preceding results, it is evident that the peat used in these experiments is an extremely inert substance, and that it is of such nature as to be practically unaffected by the action of soil bacteria. The fact that the peat produced no effect either on nitrification or dentrification, on the one hand, or on the solubility i Tech. Bull. No. 4, Michigan Agr. College, Nov., 1909, p. 28, Organic Nitro- genous Compounds in Peat Soils. of the plant food constituents contained in the soil, on the other, is especially strong evidence in support of this view. It would appear reasonable to conclude, therefore, that the chemical and biological effects produced by this material, at least for the first year after it has been applied, will be negligible, and since the plant foods contained in the peat itself are largely unavailable, the effects that will be produced on crops under field conditions, will probably not be great. In addition to the above experiments, I have frequently observed the conditions in certain citrus groves near Eiverside where peat has been in use for some time, but as yet no apparent effects have been produced on the growth or well-being of the trees. The lumps of peat can still be seen in the soil, and careful exam- ination shows that it has not undergone any apparent change. Ordinarily, stable manure when applied in this section becomes completely decomposed in much less time than has elapsed since the application of peat in the groves referred to. In view of the well known experience with peat in other parts of the world, and the information derived from the above studies on this material, it seems safe to conclude that the farmer in California is not justified in placing more than a nominal fertilizing value on this material. (Signed) W. P. Kelley. In the laboratory of Agricultural Chemistry at Berkeley we have demonstrated that virgin peat soils gave a three-fold crop when fertilized with phosphate fertilizers, indicating very clearly that the phosphate in fresh peat is likely to be highly unavailable. We have made no studies as to the availability of potash in peat, but as stated above, the total potash is so small as to be negligible. Peat contains from a third to a tenth or less potash than the normal California soil so that its addition would actually decrease the percentage of total potash in soils on which it is used. CONCENTRATED PEAT Peat like any other watery material can be concentrated by the simple process of evaporating the water. The effect of this is to increase the amount of each non-volatile constituent in proportion to the loss of water. The advantage to be derived from this practice is that the resulting material weighs only about a third as much as the original peat and contains about three times as much of each con- stituent (other than water) in a ton of dried material. If peat has any fertilizing value the drying is justifiable in that it saves about two-thirds of the transportation charges if the drying is thorough. Such substances tend to absorb considerable quantities of moisture from the air, however, so that the proportionate increased concentration estimated above represents a maximum figure for peat of average composition. 8 ILL EFFECTS OF DRYING Drying or desiccation of vegetative material has been observed to decrease its capacity for rapid nitrification, even when subsequently moistened and added to soils. 2 A portion at least of the benefit of drying peat may be lost by a lowering of the nitrifiability of the material. DRIED PEAT VERSUS FARMYARD MANURE The statement is frequently made that dried peat is more con- centrated than fresh farmyard manure. This is true but it is quite possible to dry farmyard manure and thus obtain a much more concentrated product than dried peat. The reason for this is that while fresh peat and fresh farmyard manure contain about the same percentages of organic matter, the remaining material in manure is largely water, while peat normally contains much more of valueless ash or mineral ingredients which reduce the percentage of organic matter in the dried product. INOCULATED PEAT The claim is frequently made that peat may be advantageously inoculated with various organisms, thereby increasing the availability of its nitrogen content or enhancing the nitrogen-fixing power of soils to which it is applied. A very clear exposition of the prevailing opinion of scientific men with reference to the possibilities of inoculat- ing peat may be obtained from the following letter from Dr. Chas. B. Lipman, Professor of Soil Chemistry and Bacteriology, University of California. . . . The only extensive studies which have been made on the inoculation of peat are those which were carried out in England by Bottomley and his associates at the University of London, and those carried out by Voelcker at the Woburn Experiment Station, by Eussell and his associates, at the Eothamsted Experiment Station, and by Chittenden, both of which latter were intended to check the claims of Bottomley. Mr. Bottomley 's claims were that peat is very much improved for purposes of soil amendment by its inoculation with bacteria closely similar to many of the so-called ammonifying or ammonia-producing- bacteria in the soil. The idea involved is that the very inert organic nitrogenous compounds contained in the peat are rendered soluble and easily hydrolizable through the action of the micro-organisms. It has been further claimed by Bottomley that some of the dissolved organic compounds thus produced may serve after the sterilization of the peat as markedly efficient sources of energy for micro-organisms which have 2 Stewart, G. E., Availability of the Nitrogen in Pacific Coast Kelps, Journal of Agricultural Eesearch, vol. IV, no. 1, April, 1915. 9 the power of fixing nitrogen from the air, and which have been introduced into such sterilized peat. The material thus prepared is commercially known as 1 ' Humogen ' ' or bacterized peat. Bottomley and some of his commercial sup- porters have carried out experiments and shown photographs of the plants involved, which are calculated to substantiate their extravagant claims for the improvement of the peat through inoculation. The other English experiments which are referred to above, however, have given little or no support to the claims made by Bottomley. Chittenden and Russell, in particular, have gone on record as saying that, in their experiments, the plants grown on soils treated with the bacterized peat do not seem to have been affected beneficially any more than plants grown on similar soils not treated with that substance. In view of the fact that such careful experimenters, prob- ably among the most conservative in the field of agricultural science, have made these statements renders it necessary for any one commenting on the subject in question to decide that the public will be unjustly and unscientifically advised if it is not warned that many more experiments by careful students of the sub- ject are necessary before the exact facts in the case can be ascertained. In view, therefore, of this situation, coupled with the traditional information which we have always had relative to the inert nature of peat and its ineffectiveness when applied to soils, make it necessary for me to advise against the acceptance by the public of any statements made on the superior nature of inoculated as against uninoculated peat, as well as on its value as a source of nitrogen and even of organic matter to soils. (Signed) Chas. B. Lipman. SAND OR SILT IN PEAT When peat beds are subjected to the influence of rising or falling- water they are always more or less contaminated with mineral par- ticles of sand, silt, or clay. The effect of this is to render the resulting material still less valuable as a soil amendment, the mineral particles constituting a worthless filler. SUMMARY 1. The substances commonly included in the term organic matter and derived from plant or vegetative tissues have a recognized value as soil amendments apart from their plant food contents. 2. Organic matter is contained in manures of all kinds, in straw, hay, etc., and in peat. 3. The commercial value of substances of the same kind, such as manures, should be based upon their percentages of organic matter. 4. Fresh peat contains about the same amount of organic matter as the average fresh manure. 5. Dried peat will normally contain less organic matter than manure of the same degree of dryness. 10 6. Peat, unlike farmyard manure, does not decay rapidly in the soil, nor is it readily nitrified ; it cannot, therefore, be regarded as an ' ' available ' ' material. 7. We regard the inoculation of peat as a useless procedure and an unnecessary expense to the farmer. 8. Peat frequently contains considerable sand or silt, making it still less valuable agriculturally. 9. Any plant substance which has undergone partial decay in water is to be regarded as peat. 10. In the absence of more favorable results than those heretofore obtained in experiments with peat, the use of this material is not advised. 11. Farmers are expressly advised that the plant food constituents of peat are not to be regarded as having the same commercial value as those of high grade fertilizers nor is peat commercially or agri- culturally as valuable as farmyard manure. STATION PUBLICATIONS AVAILABLE FOR FREE DISTRIBUTION No. 230. 242. 250. 251. 252. 253. 255. 257. 261. 262. 263. 264. 265. 266. 267. 268. 270. 271. 272. 273. No. 113. 114. 115. 124. 126. 127. 128. 129. 131. 133. 135. 136. 137. 138. 139. 140. 142. 143. 144. 147. 148. 150. 151. 152. 153. 154. 155. 156. 157. 15 8-. 160. 161. 162. BULLETINS No. Enological Investigations. Humus in California Soils. The Loquat. Utilization of the Nitrogen and Organic Matter in Septic and Imhoff Tank Sludges. Deterioration of Lumber. Irrigation and Soil Conditions in the Sierra Nevada Foothills, California. The Citricola Scale. New Dosage Tables. Melaxuma of the Walnut, "Juglans regia." Citrus Diseases of Florida and Cuba Compared with Those of California. Size Grades for Ripe Olives. The Calibration of the Leakage Meter. Cottony Rot of Lemons in California. A Spotting of Citrus Fruits Due to the Action of Oil Liberated from the Rind. Experiments with Stocks for Citrus. Growing and Grafting Olive Seedlings. A Comparison of Annual Cropping, Bi- ennial Cropping, and Green Manures on the Yield of Wheat. Feeding Dairy Calves in California. Commercial Fertilizers. Preliminary Report on Kearney Vine- yard Experimental Drain. 274. 275. 2 76. 277. 278. 279. 280. 281. 282. 283. 284. 286. 288. 290. 292. 293. 294. 295. 296. CIRCULARS No. 164. 165. Correspondence Courses in Agriculture. Increasing the Duty of Water. Grafting Vinifera Vineyards. Alfalfa Silage for Fattening Steers. 166. Spraying for the Grape Leaf Hopper. 167. House Fumigation. 168. Insecticide Formulas. The Control of Citrus Insects. 169. Spraying for Control of Walnut Aphis. 170. Countv Farm Adviser. Official Tests of Dairy Cows. 172. Melilotus Indica. 174. Wood Decay in Orchard Trees. 175. The Silo in" California Agriculture. The Generation of Hydrocyanic Acid 176. • Gas in Fumigation by Portable Ma- chines. 177. The Practical Application of Improved 179. Methods of Fermentation in Califor- nia Wineries during 1913 and 1914. 181. Practical and Inexpensive Poultry Ap- pliances. 182. Control of Grasshoppers in Imperial Valley. 183. Oidium or Powderv Mildew of the Vine. 184. Tomato Growing in California. 186. "Lungworms." 187. Round Worms in Poultry. 188. Feeding and Management of Hogs. 189. Some Observations on the Bulk Hand- 191. ling of Grain in California. 192. Announcement of the California State 193. Dairv Cow Competition, 1916-18. 196. Irrigation Practice in Growing Small 197. Fruits in California. Bovine Tuberculosis. 198. How to Operate an Incubator. 200. Control of the Pear Scab. Home and Farm Canning. 201. Lettuce Growinsr in California. 202. Potatoes in California. White Diarrhoea and Cocoidiosis of Chicks. The Common Honey Bee as an Agent in Prune Pollination. The Cultivation of Belladonna in Cali- fornia. The Pomegranate. Sudan Grass. Grain Sorghums. Irrigation of Rice in California. Irrigation of Alfalfa in the Sacramento Valley. Control of the Pocket Gophers in Cali- fornia. Trials with California Silage Crops for Dairy Cows. The Olive Insects of California. Irrigation of Alfalfa in Imperial Valley. Commercial Fertilizers. Potash from Tule and the Fertilizer Value of Certain Marsh Plants. The June Drop of Washington Navel Oranges. The Common Honey Bee as an Agent in Prune Pollination. (2nd report.) Green Manure Crops in Southern Cali- fornia. Sweet Sorghums for Forage. Bean Culture in California. Fire Protection for Grain Fields. Topping and Pinching Vines. Small Fruit Culture in California. Fundamentals of Sugar Beets under California Conditions. The County Farm Bureau. Feeding Stuffs of Minor Importance. Spraying for the Control of Wild Morn- ing-Glory within the Fog Belt. The 1918 Grain Crop. Fertilizing California Soils for the 1918 Crop. Wheat Culture. Farm Drainage Methods. Progress Report on the Marketing and Distribution of Milk. Hog Cholera Prevention and the Serum Treatment. Grain Sorghums. Factors of Importance in Producing Milk of Low Bacterial Count. Control of the California Ground Squirrel. Extending the Area of Irrigated Wheat in California for 1918. Infectious Abortion in Cows. A Flock of Sheen on the Farm. Poultry on the Farm. Utilizing the Sorghums. Lambing Sheds. Winter Forage Crops. Pruning the Seedless Grapes. Cotton in the San Joaquin Valley. A Study of Farm Labor in California. Dairy Calves for Veal. Suggestions for Increasing Egg Pro- duction in a Time of High-Feed Prices. Syrup from Sweet Sorehum. Growing the Fall or Second Crop of Potatoes in Califoi-nia. Helpful Hints to Hog Raisers. County Organization for Rural Fire Control.